Walking out of the National Theatre’s Tartuffe recently, I felt a vague sense of discomfort. It was because one of the play’s longest jokes was more than slightly off the mark and I was disturbed by the fact that I hadn’t read anything about it.
Unfortunately, as it turns out, I had attended one of just three captioned performances in the play’s nearly three-month-long run. As Tartuffe began to speak, I was surprised to see “Tartuffe [Polish accent]” appear in the captions. For the duration of the two-and-a-half-hour running time, I patiently awaited an explanation. None came.
Casting Tartuffe as a ‘generic’ immigrant with an unidentifiable accent would have been a clever choice. John Donnelly’s version is updated to take place in contemporary England, and fears of immigrants in 21st-century English society are not unlike fears of other classes in aristocratic 17th-century French society. It would have been such a good choice, in fact, that Henry Hitchings of the Evening Standard wrote of Denis O’Hare’s Tartuffe: “A deliberately wonky accent suggests, intriguingly, that he could just as soon be from Paris, Poznan or Penge.”
Had Hitchings attended one of the captioned performances, he would have known that O’Hare’s accent wasn’t wonky but was meant to be Polish. This choice is so irrelevant and the accent so poorly executed that the Guardian’s Michael Billington refers to it as “South American”, while the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish identifies it as “suspect Spanish”. Over at Time Out, Andrzej Lukowski (a fellow Pole) describes a “non-specifically Euro-accented Tartuffe”.
Tartuffe is obviously a parody – and casting the eponymous character as an immigrant with an unidentifiable accent would have added to that. But choosing to cast him as a specific nationality but offering no context or explanation is an act of prejudice and stereotyping.
The question the audience is left with, and should be demanding answers to, is: why? As Natasha Tripney wrote in an opinion piece for The Stage last year: “It’s time for theatre to stop stereotyping Eastern Europeans.”
In Brexit England, where hate crimes have surged, and Polish people continue to be targeted, stereotyping nationalities should come as no surprise. I just didn’t think it could happen at one of the nation’s most respected theatres and go unnoticed. I am okay with a good Polish joke. Unfortunately, there isn’t one here.
I doubt Robert Glenister has the time to acquaint himself fully with the intricacies of UK tax law, and will have been acting on the advice of his accountants. In such a case, there’s really no good reason why it isn’t they, not him, who should be bearing the ultimate cost of having given bad advice to their client. That’s what their insurance is for, and I hope he goes after them for every penny, as should anyone else in a similar position.
The accountants blame Equity for changing the wording in the contracts. So who is to blame? How has it got to this? Why are actors bearing the brunt? Shouldn’t Equity or the accountants accept some responsibility for this?
As serious practitioners continue to be trampled under roving hordes of theatre tourists and drowned out by the blockbusters, these policies will only further eliminate fresh, innovative work. Even the scarcely funded Arts Labs of the late 1960s, which produced the likes of David Bowie and were hugely popular, seem to have produced more traction than the current spreadsheet sieves.
The Lab people knew that two out of three would be good ideas and one out of three might be a hit. Perhaps a look at the efforts of Arts Councillors such as Jennie Lee, Arnold Goodman, David Curtis and Jim Haynes would be time well spent? They did happen to produce a golden age of creativity.
The writing is on the kiosks: come with 100,000+ Instagram followers, or get lost. Come pre-cooked, shrink-wrapped and sterile, or don’t bother.
Be ‘liked’ or be damned. The notion that a creative person should begin with a crystal ball for ‘outcomes’ demonstrates a misunderstanding of the creative process altogether.
If this corrosive policy persists, the guaranteed ‘outcome’ is that the brightest of tomorrow will be too busy trying to figure out Excel to write anything new. Only the anointed few will be funded. Everyone but the writers, actors and directors will get handsomely paid and the scant houses that do remain will be swallowed up by Disney. As Jean Giraudoux aptly noted: “Only the mediocre are always at their best.”
The Arts Council has struggled to resolve this fundamental question since it was established. The mistake is to confuse the need to facilitate great art (which is desirable) with the requirement to disperse state funding to the most worthy (tricky). Should we fund the artist that creates the art, the producer who makes it happen or the venue that puts it on? Enthusiasts would argue all three, but if the overall funding pot is reduced then how should the Arts Council fulfil its obligation to the taxpayers?
Cultural curators need to be mindful of the political shifts occurring across the country and the disdain of ‘the expert’, which inevitably will raise questions about the definition of excellence and who decides how the cake is cut.
“Why do contemporary dramatists find women so boring? We are by no means equal as a gender, but there have been major improvements. Doors have opened for women that were firmly locked many decades ago. Why don’t contemporary dramatists find us interesting?” – Actor Glenda Jackson (US radio station NPR)
“I was rehearsing the first play (Alexis Ziegerman’s Holy Sh!t) not knowing whether we’d be able to put it on in the theatre, whether it would be ready. It was a feat of a lot of people busting their guts. That summer was the scariest thing.” – Director Indhu Rubasingham on Kiln Theatre’s reopening (Evening Standard)
“Seeing West Side Story as a kid was massive for me. It was the first full-blown musical I’d seen featuring people of colour and it made me think, ‘I could do that’. Much as I loved The Sound of Music, I could never see myself as Julie Andrews.” – Actor Sharon D Clarke (the Telegraph)
“Why is it that once you hit 26, everything in the arts is cut off – cheap tickets, opportunities. They act like you should be making it by 26. I found the artist in me this year, which means I have to work twice as hard to get my art seen one day.” – Actor, writer and poet Humaira Iqbal (Twitter)
“I try to choose projects where I don’t just have to hit my mark, because for me that takes any artistry out of what I do. It’s really nice to be working with the director Che on stage because he allows you to play.” – Actor Summer Strallen on Intra Muros (London Theatre)
“What an amazing experience, a theatre full of babies and a properly righteous play banging the drum for feminism, women’s history and all the women who have gone unrecorded.” – Kate Jarman (Twitter)
Email your views to firstname.lastname@example.org Please mark your email as ‘for publication’. The Stage reserves the right to edit letters for publication.